Edited Transcript:

The scriptures are not one type of book. They contain many different types of writing … One of the most important things to understand when you interpret any part of the Bible is to understand its genre. What type of literature is this? Because, as I tell my students, genre triggers reading strategy … In the Bible, you do not have all of one type of writing. You have history, you have law, you have wisdom literature, poetry, letters, and we could go on and on. You have to ask the question: what type of literature am I reading?

… I will restrict my comments tonight to Genesis 1 and 2. There are certain signals within Genesis 1 and 2 that tell me it is telling me about the past in one sense. But it is not doing so in a detailed way. In other words, it is not giving me a literal description of what actually happened. So here are a few things that persuade me in that direction:

1. The high frequency of obviously figurative language. I will just give one example, but I am sure we will come to the days of Genesis later. In Genesis 2:7, God is described as creating Adam from the dust of the ground and the breath of God. Now this is not the Holy Spirit, this is the breath of God, and we know that God is a spirit. So this is an anthropomorphic, figurative description of the creation of the first human … It is teaching things like: humans are a part of creation and have a special relationship with God. So that is one thing that influences my reading of Genesis.

2. How it interacts with Ancient Near Eastern literature. And again I will use Genesis 2:7, and I think it is interesting and relevant to know that in ancient Babylonian creation texts, human beings are created from the dust or clay of the ground and a divine element, but not the breath of God. Rather it is the blood of a demon god combined with the blood and spit of the gods. I won’t give you the full context, but I think the Biblical text is making a comment about the dignity of humanity, that stands in contrast to the Babylonian idea of the disdain toward humanity. So in other words, it is not telling us how God did it, but making a comment on humanity and humanity’s dignity.

3. … We have two creation texts within Genesis 1 and 2. Genesis 1:1-2:4a is the first creation account and has the cosmic perspective Genesis 2:4b-25 is a second creation account that focuses in on humanity, and if you study it carefully, you see that there is a different sequence of creation in these two accounts. For instance, in chapter one, land is formed and then vegetation comes forth on day 4 and humans are not created until day 6. Whereas in the second creation account, Adam is created first, before vegetation is created. So … there is a school of thought that says these are two contradictory depictions of creation. They are only contradictory if you think it is trying to give you some sort of literal description of how creation actually took place. To me, that is a signal that we are not to read it as a literal depiction.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does your impression of the genre of a text influence the way you read it?
  2. Is an anthropomorphic presentation of God an indication that the text should be interpreted figuratively? What lessons can we still glean from a figurative account?
  3. Is it helpful to compare the Genesis account of creation with Babylonian accounts? What does the contrast between them suggest about the purpose of the Biblical account?
  4. How do you make sense of the two different creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2? Do their discrepancies suggest to you that the accounts are contradictory or that they are figurative?